View Blog History Unfolding: March 2008

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The end of the new imperialism?

About forty years ago, two British historians named Robinson and Gallagher made an interesting argument about 19th-century British imperialism. Britain, they argued in effect, did not seek occupation and direct rule of territories in Africa for its own sake--the British were quite content to work with local elites while pursuing their economic interests. Unfortunately, European economic and financial involvement often led to conflict and chaos--for example in Egypt in the late 1880s, where the government could not longer pay its debts. Faced with the alternatives of loss of their investments, chaos, and intervention, the British (and other powers such as the United States in the Caribbean twenty years later) usually intervened. Again and again, the disproportionate impact of the west in what we now call the third world led to chaos and intervention.

Something similar has been happening in the Middle East for the last thirty years, albeit with wildly differing results. The Shah of Iran's embrace of secularism and his overt and covert alliances with the United States and Israel led to his fall in 1979 and to the first great Islamic revolution. The United States during the next decade found it expedient to strengthen Saddam Hussein, but when in 1990 he used his new wealth and stature to invade Kuwait, a long struggle began that culminated in his most unwise overthrow. Then in 2001 terrorism on a large scale emerged as one outcome of weak central authorities and abundant oil money in much of the Islamic world, and the Bush Administration suddenly decided that the whole region needed a new, democratic form of government. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan resulted. And although the word remains unmentionable among the American political and journalistic elite, a new imperialism had begun.

The history of European imperialism is far too complex (and, to be frank, I do not know enough of the details myself) to summarize it here. Yet it is fair to say that the British, in particular, usually relied to the maximum extent possible on local elites and local power structures to rule new colonies, while introducing some legal innovations of their own. For a variety of reasons, from racism to sophisticated historical understanding, they understood that their own legal and democratic institutions had taken centuries to develop, and did not believe they could be exported wholesale. Arthur Balfour argued publicly in the 1890s that the Egyptians had never governed themselves and that the British were now giving them the best government they had ever had. Americans have never been capable of that level of cynicism--and as long as they eschewed that kind of imperialism themselves, that was all to the good.

If however the United States ever collapses completely, I suspect that an excess of idealism will be to blame. Faced with an increasingly chaotic and hostile Middle East, President Bush decided that the solution was simple: American-style institutions for all. The events of the last five years in Iraq, culminating in the outbreak of civil war in the Shi'ite South, show how mindless that belief was. The American attempt to create an impartial central authority that all Iraqis would trust has been a complete failure--and, to be fair, almost surely never had a chance in the first place. A complicated network of local tribes, militias, and religious leaders competes for leadership all over the country. Such elections have been held have shown a complete division along ethnic and religious lines (as I pointed out the week of the first national elections.) Iraqi politics resemble those of New York's five families more than anything else, and there are no "pezzonovantes, the real .90 calibers," at all, except perhaps for the 150,000 American troops. During the last year they have stabilized Sunni areas without changing the fundamentals of the situation at all. They have simply brought many local Sunni networks into alliance with the U.S., mostly by paying them off on a continuing basis. That does resemble classic European strategies, but the Europeans, as John McCain would say, were willing to stay for a hundred years. Two Sundays ago the Boston Globe had a remarkable story about the American presence in the mixed town of Rashid, recounting a meeting of Shi'ite and Sunni tribal leaders. When some one had the temerity to ask them whether they could remain at peace when the Americans left, they agreed firmly that they could not, to the American commander's dismay. "You are the safety valve," one said.

The "nation-building" projects we are engaged in in Iraq and Afghanistan have much more in common with classical imperialism than with the relatively brief occupations of Germany and Japan, countries that had significant democratic and legal traditions, after 1945. (Significantly, perhaps, we are now engaged in two countries where Europeans never had a lasting presence--in fact, no European nation had the audacity to try to control Afghanistan until the Russians in 1979.) Unfortunately, we have uniformly found that in the twenty-first century, a client relationship with the United States is invariably a huge political liability. Last week also saw the appalling spectacle of a high-level American mission dispatched to Pakistan to impress upon its newly elected government the need not to deviate too severely from the policies of Perez Musharraf, the client upon whom we have been relying, and whom the Pakistani people have now repudiated. In the same way we cling to Mahmoud Abbas in Palestine, all the more so since Hamas actually won the election.

Al-Maliki's attempt to subdue the Mahdi Army in the South, Juan Cole speculates on his blog, was proposed by Vice President Cheney during his recent visit as a means to try to make sure that the pro-Maliki parties won the coming provincial elections. Certainly I do not believe that Maliki would have undertaken such drastic steps without American blessing, and I recall that General Petraeus, in his testimony last September, said bluntly in response to a question that he did not regard developments in southern Iraq as part of his business. The London Times is repeatedly reporting (as American papers are not) that large parts of the Iraqi security forces in the South have simply gone over to al-Sadr. Today he has called for his followers to cease fire, but that may be from a position of strength, not weakness. The on-scene reporting does not suggest that the Iraqi government is going to emerge stronger from this measure. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration's response to the failure of its policies, from tax cuts to invading Islamic nations, is almost invariably to push further ahead. There does not seem to be much chance that they will be restrained by the oncoming election. We desperately need a new President who will be willing to scale back our new imperialist project and began trying to live with the Islamic world as it is.

Meanwhile, on the political front here at home, Frank Rich has an interesting column about Hillary Clinton's astonishing failure to stop claiming to have landed under fire in Bosnia, long after it had been exposed. He wonders how the professionals around her could have allowed this to happen, and I can think of only one answer. Like the Nixon and George W. Bush entourages, her advisers have created their own world, in which their candidate can do no wrong and reality is whatever they say it is. That must in turn reflect something important, and frightening, about the candidate's own personality. It is another reason to hope, in my opinion, that leading Democrats continue to call for her withdrawal and that, as Howard Dean has proposed, the nomination be settled by June 1. My birthday is six days later, and it would be nice present indeed.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Review of The Road to Dallas

From today's Chicago Sun-Times, a review of The Road to Dallas:

A treat for JFK theorists

Historian plows through new research

March 23, 2008

There have been so many analyses, fantasies and theories devoted to the assassination of John F. Kennedy that anything purporting itself as a fresh perspective runs the risk of suffocation. Anything less than a smoking gun -- or two -- will cause many casual readers to shrug with the frustration that they've heard it all before.

The Road to Dallas (Belknap Press, 536 pages, $35), written by David Kaiser, tries to preempt that shrug by billing itself as the first book written on the subject by a professional historian who has pored over the volumes of recently declassified information.

Kaiser, a history professor at the Naval War College, not only reports on what he has researched, but at times he takes an active role in contacting pertinent subjects in the declassified material.

The result is a thorough recounting of facts interspersed with interpretations and opinions that carry the weight of someone who knows how to analyze history. The Road to Dallas is laboriously comprehensive at times and shockingly illuminating at others. It may not prove the conspiracy it suggests -- that while Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman he wasn't alone in planning the assassination -- but it provides unusual substance to its argument because of the nature of the material and the background of the author.

Kaiser isn't the first to suggest JFK was assassinated by a conspiracy of anti-Castro Cubans upset at Kennedy's failure to eliminate Fidel Castro and a Mafia enraged by the obsession of JFK's attorney general, his brother Robert Kennedy, to attack organized crime. But Kaiser may be the first to reach the depth of reporting the facts that support this theory.

The book is full of anecdotes that will make many wonder why these facts weren't reported before, or at least reported on a more mainstream level. It opens with three men visiting a Cuban woman -- Silvia Odio -- in Dallas in early October 1963. Odio testified that one of the men was Oswald, while the other two were believed to be American anti-Castro mercenaries Loran Hall and Lawrence Howard. Hall had spent time in a Cuban prison with Florida mob boss Santo Trafficante Jr., who owned several Havana casinos before Castro's rise to power. During their time in prison, Trafficante was visited by Jack Ruby.

The intermingling of key players in Kaiser's conspiracy theory, including Jimmy Hoffa and his alliance with the mob, allows him to connect the dots to effectively argue that Oswald did not act alone.

It was amazing to learn about the vast number of assassination plots and attempts against Castro that were conceived, encouraged or at least winked at by the U.S. government. Some of them were comical, such as a plan to employ exploding seashells and a poisoned diving suit. The incompetence of the endeavors was nearly as acute as the audacity.

Lyndon Johnson, as well as others, assumed Castro played a role in JFK's assassination.

The U.S. government's willingness to employ mob help to get rid of Castro while at the same time Robert Kennedy was trying to crack down on organized crime reflected the firewalls that existed between government agencies before 9/11.

Kaiser uncovered several quotes by people such as Hoffa calling for John Kennedy to be assassinated. Hoffa's mob associates relied on the money stolen from Hoffa's Teamsters Union, so many powerful and dangerous people suffered by RFK's personal quest to bring down Hoffa. The Kennedy administration was an enemy to many.

It would be hard to imagine anyone but Kennedy assassination scholars and historians not learning something new in Kaiser's book. For fans of Oliver Stone's movie "JFK" (1991) and JFK assassination junkies, the book is the latest -- and perhaps best -- view of the historic event.

Roman Modrowski is an assistant sports editor for the Sun-Times

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Turning Point

This past week will mark a turning point in American history no matter how the election turns out, because it is yet another turning point in the history of relations among the races in the United States. The subject was one I had already been thinking intensively about, having read the second volume (1965-73) of the excellent Library of America compilation, Reporting Civil Rights. That volume, in retrospect, chronicled the collapse of the civil rights movement as a unifying and effective political force, as well as the massive shift in white Southern votes that created a fairly stable Republican majority that endures to this day. The rhetoric of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who was 24 in 1965, reflects that shift. The rhetoric of Senator Barack Obama, who was 3, reflects the first serious attempt to overcome it at the Presidential level, and I hope that he can succeed.

So powerful was the democratic ideal represented by the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution that it initially inspired even those inhabitants of the United States who were denied its exercise. In the thirty years before the Civil War, black American leaders, Frederick Douglass most notable among them, not only asked for the benefits of American citizenship but argued that the Constitution logically guaranteed them. Douglass wrote a long essay arguing that slavery was, in fact, incompatible with the Constitution. The tortured language the framers used whenever they had to refer to the subject—“excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons,” or, “the migration and importation of such persons “as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit—testifies to their unwillingness to include any explicit recognition of slavery in the document, and tends to confirm Lincoln’s claim that most of the Founders, having excluded slavery from the Northwest Territories, expected that it would disappear. (In 2002 I heard James Meredith, the first black student at the University of Mississippi, make a similar argument in an NPR interview on the anniversary of his admission. He commended the Founders’ wisdom in refusing to define more than one legal class of persons.) The Republicans adopted that view in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, of course, but after the Compromise of 1876 white Southerners began rolling them back. Booker T. Washington, a generation behind Douglass, abandoned any immediate attempt to secure black Constitutional rights, but one more generation later, W. E. B. Dubois, born in 1868, and the other founders of the NAACP staked their claim to full citizenship based upon the Constitution. And although DuBois, in whom I have become much interested, took heart from any evidence (such as the Russo-Japanese War) that the white race might not be able to maintain its dominion over the rest of the world, he supported the United States in both world wars, while constantly calling for equal rights at home. (As Barack Obama, who has obviously studied him as well, has pointed out, after 1948, DuBois—then 80—moved sharply leftward, and died in Ghana as an embittered Communist, coincidentally on the eve of the great March on Washington that was to realize his original hopes.)

As I have noted here before, current history pays little attention to the great black leaders of the Lost and GI generations, such as Walter White (who took over the leadership of the NAACP from Dubois), White’s successor Roy Wilkins, and Thurgood Marshall. Yet it was they and their white contemporaries who deserve by far the most credit for the end of legal segregation from 1947 (when Harry Truman integrated the armed forces) to 1965 (when the voting rights was passed.) The Silent Generation, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., started the civil disobedience movement that was also crucial to the passage of the civil rights acts, but they were building upon several decades of organizational work, intense involvement in the politics of northern states, and the decades-long legal struggles that led to Brown v. Board of Education. (Those were largely the brainchild of another forgotten leader, Charles Hamilton Houston, a law professor at Howard University who both conceived of the strategy and trained the lawyers, including Marshall, who made it work.) A long list of white GIs, including Hubert Humphrey, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, responded to all that pressure and made legal equality a reality in the mid-1960s.

But the passage of the civil rights acts, as the Library of America shows so clearly, coincided with two other fateful events. The first was the coming of age of the Boom generation, black and white, which had an instinctive distrust of its elders’ achievements. The second was the Vietnam War, which left the government of the United States open to all sorts of accusations of inherent evil. And as a result, by the early 1970s—just a few years after black Americans had at last secured legal equality—younger blacks took it for granted that the United States was nothing but a racist, imperialist nation that had little or nothing to offer to its black citizens. The promise of America, they suddenly argued, was no promise at all. Initially these beliefs fueled a variety of hopeless revolutionary movements, while swelling the ranks of disaffected white voters who rapidly became Republicans. In subsequent decades, even as the black middle class has grown, they have remained popular, especially in academia—and, as we now know, in many black churches. The Reverend Wright is far from alone in entertaining the notion that AIDS was developed by the government to kill off blacks and homosexuals, absurd though that obviously may be. The filmmaker Spike Lee, who certainly should know better, has given that idea some support in public as well.

One could write a book about the development of this new black consciousness over the last four decades, but I will content myself to a few remarks. First of all, during the previous century and a half, racist white politicians, newspapers, and, not least, historians, had spread numerous outrageous myths about black people, and it was only natural that black Americans, as soon as they could speak freely, would return the favor. (The most extraordinary example of white propaganda related to Reconstruction, which southern historians had successfully convinced the whole country by the 1930s had been a disaster and a disgrace, instead of a legitimate attempt to secure equal rights for all southerners.) Secondly, it seems sad that although the sins of white Americans towards their black fellow citizens were certainly bad enough in reality, orators like the Reverend Wright feel compelled to exaggerate, stating, for instance, that the black syphilis patients in the Tuskegee experiment were purposely infected with syphilis by white doctors. That appears to be a complete falsehood—those patients were instead denied standard treatments, both before 1947, when treatments were not very successful, and after, when penicillin proved effective. But lastly and in my opinion most importantly, views like the Reverend Wright’s rest upon a critical misconception. He seems constantly to imply that powerful whites have perpetrated injustices (both real and imaginary) because they are white. I beg to differ. The whole of human history suggests that they have perpetrated them because they are powerful—and that powerful members of other races will frequently take advantage of their power in the same way.

Thus it is well-established, for anyone who wants to find out, that whites did not invent black African slavery—they took advantage of it. Slavery was a thriving institution in much of Africa (and the Middle East) when white traders entered the market in the 16th century and began bringing slaves across the Atlantic. Before the twentieth century any atrocities perpetrated by European elites could easily be matched by counterparts in other parts of the world, and the unprecedented crimes of whites in the twentieth century, I would argue, can be put down only to superior technology, not superior wickedness. The unpleasant truth we must confront about human beings has nothing to do with race: it is simply that power corrupts. Nor does the behavior of female politicians such as Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi suggest that female leadership will be immune from this chronic disease either. There is no reason to suppose that a black or female American President will be more likely to resist the temptation of power (especially on the international scene) than any previous incumbent—and if they are more restrained, it will be because of individual qualities having nothing to do with race or gender.

And what about Barack Obama?

When I read, and then watched, his speech last Tuesday, I thought it was the most effective speech of the last 45 years or so, an extraordinarily honest attempt both to define the racial crisis (in large part, a crisis of beliefs and opinions, as I have tried to show) in the United States, and to try to move beyond it. When Obama referred to the bigoted remarks of his white grandmother, I also smiled to myself because of the kinship that I (as the product of a religiously mixed marriage) felt with him. We half-breeds, I said to myself, can’t be trusted—we have no allegiance to anything but principles and we’ll rat out anybody. (Our existence, too, is a living rebuke to bigotry. Take it from me, no one can hate bigotry more than those of us who know that if everyone were a bigot, we would never have been born.) But I admit that when I actually watched Reverend Wright’s now-notorious clips yesterday, I was shaken, both with respect to Obama’s judgment and with respect to my own ability to be consistent. Would I, I asked myself, be willing to accept as reasonable the candidacy of a Republican who for many years had attended a church whose pastor railed against godless feminists and homosexuals?

I would be most unlikely to vote for such a person, of course, simply because he or she was a Republican—but eventually something else occurred to me. If that candidate (let’s call him John Smith) were to make a speech repudiating those views, specifically likening them to extreme views on the other side of the political fence, and arguing that the United States has to reject such views to move forward as a nation, I would certainly respect him. And as I write those views another thought occurs to me. Such a candidate could never be nominated by the Republican Party in 2008. That was why Mitt Romney could not simply claim a right to be a Mormon, but had to add the standard Republican nonsense about the eternal place of religion in the American public square. The Democratic Party remains the more tolerant party, and Obama simply extended its tolerance to the expression of views like Reverend Wright’s, which, as he said himself, are unfortunately common among blacks. Obama genuinely offered a way out of the box we have been living in for forty years. His opponents have not.

Bill Richardson’s courageous endorsement of Obama moves him a big step closer to the nomination. As of this morning, the three other leading Democrats who could have an even greater impact—John Edwards, Nancy Pelosi, and above all, Al Gore—seem likely to remain silent. The betting markets, however, still show Obama as an overwhelming favorite. He will face a brutal campaign against himself, but his personal demeanor on Tuesday suggests that he has the cool to handle it. If he loses, however, it will tell the black community that no black who even acknowledges mainstream black opinion, if only to disagree with it, can hope to become President, and that will be a terrible setback for the nation.

Monday, March 17, 2008

New interview about The Road to Dallas

The excellent interview I did with Christopher Lydon, formerly of The Connection, can be heard
here .

It lasts one hour. Spread the word!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Generations rise, economies fall

42 years ago when I arrived at Harvard, the Economics Department was probably the most impressive intellectual aggregation in Humanities and Social Sciences, and I took Ec 1 (as it then was) during my freshman year. The GI generation lacked the imagination and sense of its own feelings to excel at literature or history, but they had everything they needed--both academically and as policy-makers--to handle the dismal science. They liked data, and they knew, from their own young adulthood during the Depression, how important economics were. Keeping unemployment at or below 5% mattered critically. So did a strong dollar and fiscal discipline (the deficits which Republicans and Democrats argued about in those days were trivial by today's standards.) They also understood how the crash of 1929 had become a catastrophic 12-year Depression and were keeping in place the restraints that the older generations had established in the 1930s. I particularly remember one class that year about the stock market and margin. One could, we learned, buy stock at 90% margin in 1929--in other words, $1000 of one's own money could buy $10,000 worth of stock, and if the value increased the $12,000 nearly all the increase was yours. If however the value fell to $5000, you owed $4000 which you did not have, and that, in a nutshell, is why so many well-to-do lives were ruined, along with those of others, during the Depression.

The Boom generation has never believed much in restraint, least of all in the economic field. We have cut marginal tax rates from 91% in 1963 and 50% in the late 1970s to 35% now, vastly increasing the incentive for managers to increase profits as much as possible--partly by cutting the labor force--because they can keep so much more of the proceeds. We have chpped away at the Depression-era restraints, allowing commercial and investment banks to combine during the late 1990s. (The Clinton Adminstration did impose fiscal discipline--probably its one real domestic achievement--but it paved the way for the coming crash in many ways as well.) We have developed new financial instruments like bonds backed by sub-prime mortgages that have been every bit as seductive as the Mississippi bubble in the early 18th century or prime Florida land in the 1920s. And by creating new institutions not subject to regulation, such as hedge funds, we have allowed clever Boomers and Xers to avoid the regulations that their parents and grandparents so wisely put in place. Last Friday almost became the Black Friday of a new generation when Bear, Stearns melted down. Bear Stearns, the New York Times informed me, works on 96.66 margin--of every $1 million it invests, $966,000 is borrowed. Much of those investments have now collapsed along with the subprime market, undoubtedly threatning a whole range of banks, hedge funds, non-profits and pension funds as well as Bear Stearns itself (since they are presumably the ones whose money Bear Stearns was playing with.) The Federal Reserve stepped in to ward off the catastrophe, but it will not be able to continue to rescue failing firms that way without implicating the whole nation in the potential crash. A sound banker, wrote John Maynard Keynes, is not a banker who is never ruined; he is one who is ruined along with all the others. Wall Street hasn't been so full of sound bankers since 1929.

I do not mean to be too holier than thou about all this, even if my own financial strategies have been consistently conservative over the years. This is, as I have been saying for nearly four years here now, the rhythm of history, and thanks to various historians from Thucydides to Strauss and Howe, I can recognize it as further proof that events, human nature being what it is, occur in much the same ways again and again. In addition, regretfully, human greatness is only born of adversity, and the younger generations will have the satisfaction of putting things back together again. (Alas, in my own field of academia, there is no self-correcting mechanism to expose bankruptcy and put things right.) Economically, the weeds that have been growing apace for thirty years are now threatening the crops upon which we depend, and we shall have to try to uproot them. Those who planted them--the financiers themselves--should rightly feel more pain than the rest of us. But as everyone from Martin Feldstein, the economist who on Friday predicted the worst recession since 1941, to Paul Krugman, is warning us, the economic collapse is likely to dwarf every other issue, including Iraq, by the time of the election. If that focuses us more on domestic affairs, that will be all to the good.

On another front, this weekend I taped a one-hour interview with Christopher Lydon, the former host of The Connection, about The Road to Dallas. It went very well and should be available for podcast within a few days at Please spread the word!


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A feminist on Hillary

(9:30 PM) Intellectually I suppose my two favorite exact contemporaries are the late Bill Strauss and Camille Paglia. The former became a close friend; all my attempts to meet the latter, who is simultaneously a celebrity and something of a recluse, have failed. (I see she is speaking at Harvard in about a month--I might go.) Her career has been quite similar to mine--she teaches in an out-of-the-way corner of academia, a professional school, even though she' s easily the leading literary critic of our whole generation. I frequently disagree with her, but the following column in Salon on Hillary and Obama is, I think, brilliant. Take a look.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The crisis?

(7:30 PM.) This morning I was teaching Clausewitz once again, and returning to his caution to commanders at every level to keep their heads when all around are losing theirs, and to recognize, in the chaos of combat, the truly critical problems that must be solved. I have tried to take those maxims in my own life over the years, not least in the posts I make here. But the last two days have seen a coincidence of frightening events that have left me rather shaken, and wondering whether the United States will indeed face something comparable to the secession of the southern states of 1929 or the banking crisis of 1932 in the next few months.
The first crisis is the threatened implosion of the Democratic Party (an event that played a key role in bringing the Civil War about, by the way), as the Clinton campaign ever more desperately tries to reverse the fairly clear verdict of the voters. During the last 48 hours Geraldine Ferraro, who officially takes part in that campaign, has made and reiterated the astonishing statement that Barack Obama has only gotten where he is because he is black. Coming from the woman whose selection as Vice Presidential candidate in 1984 was not only admitted to be but embraced as tokenism, that statement--made on behalf of a woman who would not be where she is but for her marriage--strikes me as the most appalling note of the whole campaign. Meanwhile, evidence is accumulating that Republican votes played a very important role in the outcomes last Tuesday both in Texas and in Ohio--not a promising development as a new Democratic majority tries to regain power.
Secondly, there is the Spitzer scandal. In 1998, at the height of the Lewinsky frenzy, I wrote an op-ed suggesting how American history might have been different--no Louisiana Purchase, no allied victory in the Second World War, and no civil rights act of 1964--if the press in earlier eras had paid so much attention to sex as they were now. No one would publish it. (I shall try to find the draft and publish it here soon, although it may be lost.) I continue to believe, first of all, that conventional morality will never master sex, and secondly, that politicians, for a variety of reasons, are clearly prone to sexual excess, and that we should be wise enough simply to accept that. I am also shocked, frankly, that the investigation into Eliot Spitzer's finances was not dropped (perhaps after a friendly word had been sent to the Governor) as soon as the authorities realized what they were dealing with. The whole client list of the Emperor's Club, I am sure, would make interesting and non-partisan reading. Nor have I forgotten that a male prostitute, "Jeff Gannon," entered the White House several dozen times during the Bush Administration for reasons that were never fully explained. As long as we still live in an era in which sex can destroy any political career, we are at risk.
But the last event, which triggered this unusual evening post, was the resignation of Admiral William Fallon as Commander of Central Command, the military region including the Middle East. Fallon has long been known to be against an attack on Iran, a point reiterated in an Esquire article about him last week by one Tom Barnett. I have never met him, but he sounds like the finest type of military leader we produce, one with his feet firmly on the ground, with a real sense of the national interest, and with courage. He was also one of the very last Vietnam veterans in the military. Secretary Gates has announced that the rumors of a difference of opinion between Fallon and the President were too much of a distraction for him to continue. I wish I could be sure that that was the reaction, but I fear that the change of command is indeed a prelude to the attack on Iran which the Vice President has reportedly urged upon the President on the grounds that no successor would have the courage to carry it out. (It is even more disturbing that the Vice President himself is traveling around the Middle East, officially in order to encourage the Middle East peace process and try to bring down the price of oil.) The past few months have given us the feeling that the Bush Administration was ready to fade into history. That may not be the case.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

How we got where we are today

A few weeks ago, an article about nuclear weapons by Joseph Cirincione in The New York Review of Books briefly cited a book called Killing Détente, by one Anne Hessing Cahn, dealing with the 1970s controversies over the Soviet threat. I had never heard of that book and couldn’t find a copy in any local library, but, as usual, came through. Dr. Cahn, who held jobs relating to arms control at the time, is now a scholar in residence at American University, and her book deserved a lot more attention than it got. It deserves even more now, because the story of the 1970s and 1980s that she described was replayed during the 1990s and 2000s, with even more devastating results, and it is still going on today.

Like most of the important foreign policy disputes of the last forty years, the fight over détente in the 1970s was essentially a family fight among Republicans, with a few conservative Democrats like Scoop Jackson joining in. For all their many faults, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger clung to one fundamental truth: no one could win a nuclear war between the superpowers, and arms control agreements simply recognized that fact. They had negotiated (albeit rather sloppily, as many have shown) SALT I by 1972, and immediately went to work on SALT II. They also rather foolishly signed a declaration of principles in Moscow in 1972, in which they and the Soviets promised never to seek advantages or act unilaterally in the future and to live happily ever after—a step no Democrat would have dared take, and which took only a couple of years to come back and bite them in the ass. That was enough to enrage more conservative elements, symbolized, perhaps, by Paul Nitze, who had been arguing since 1950 that the Soviets were seeking strategic superiority (the claims began, let it be noted, several years before the Soviets had a single deliverable nuclear weapon), and that they would not hesitate to begin war if they believed they could get away with it. Without Watergate, Nixon might have been able to face down such opposition, but his well-meaning and sensible successor Gerald Ford could not. Ronald Reagan announced against him in late 1975, Ford rapidly found himself on the run, and by the spring of 1976 Ford had announced that our foreign policy was no longer “détente,” but “peace through strength.” He had also put SALT on ice.

The conservatives, meanwhile, had identified another critical enemy: the analytical branch of the CIA, which they argued was systematically underestimating both Soviet capabilities and Soviet intentions. In part they were taking advantage of the rhythm of history. During the 1950s the CIA, American politicians, and the American press had repeatedly overestimated the Soviet threat, most notably after Sputnik, and by the early 1960s the United States had achieved overwhelming strategic superiority. But it was during that same decade that the real Soviet strategic build-up began, and thus, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Agency had underestimated the future size of Soviet forces somewhat. Ironically, Cahn points out, the surge in Soviet spending was coming to an end in 1975, just as this controversy was peaking.

Using a mixture of declassified documents and interviews, Cahn in the 1990s wrote an extraordinary study of a bureaucratic battle. The conservatives out of power had allies on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, including Edward Teller, the founder of the H-Bomb, Admiral George Anderson, a former Chief of Naval Operations whom Robert McNamara had relieved in 1963; and others. Other allies were Alfred Wohlstetter, a long-time alarmist about the Soviets, who had publicly criticized the CIA for underestimating their threat during 1974, and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger. The conservative attack was already having some impact within the Agency by 1975, but the conservatives were not satisfied, and were insisting upon the appointment of a team of outside experts that would examine key issues independently. William Colby, the director in 1973-5, resisted this, but Colby (as well as Schlesinger) was dropped by Ford in November of 1975 and replaced by George H. W. Bush. Bush’s response initially showed the low-key evenhandedness that later characterized his Presidency: he agreed to the formation of what became known as “Team B,” but only as a gesture, and he had no intention either of letting it taking over the process or, crucially, allowing its findings to become known. Once he had agreed, however, the project ran away from him.

Originally the PFIAB wanted three team Bs to examine three specific technical issues: Soviet air defense capabilities (a potential threat to American strategic bombers), Soviet missile accuracy (a potential threat to the Minuteman land-based missile via a first strike), and Soviet anti-submarine warfare capabilities (a possible threat to Polaris and Trident missile submarines.) The first two panels convened as planned, but partly because the Navy refused to provide necessary data on anti-submarine warfare, the third panel mutated into something entirely different—a group that would re-analyze Soviet strategic objectives. Harvard Professor Richard Pipes became its leader. Pipes was not a scholarly expert on the Soviet Union, but rather a distinguished historian of imperial Russia who, like so many academics of his generation, had also become a foreign policy activist. A Polish Jew whose family had reached the United States at the beginning of the Second World War, he was an early neoconservative with a highly alarmist view of the Soviet Union. His team also included 43-year old Paul Wolfowitz, who, Pipes explained, had been recommended by Richard Perle, then an aide to Senator Jackson, and a number of retired military officers, including Air Force General John Vogt, who had commanded the Christmas bombing in 1973 and who believed as late as 1986 that one more week of that bombing would have forced the North Vietnamese to withdraw all troops from South Vietnam and won the war on American terms. (I heard him say so publicly at a conference.)

The Team B report was an important episode in American history for two reasons. First of all—and this is Cahn’s point—it was a big step towards the reversal of American foreign and defense policy that took place beginning in 1979 under Jimmy Carter, and accelerating under Ronald Reagan. But it also introduced a maximalist way of thinking which Wolfowitz and his patron Perle, in particular, revived in 2002 to sell the war against Iraq. Pipes managed to expand the team’s mandate so as to examine more than a decade’s worth of CIA estimates of the Soviet Union, in order to argue that they had consistently been too sanguine (and pre-emptively discredit the next one.) But in so doing, they consistently exaggerated what the Soviets had or would do. They argued that the Soviets had a robust ABM program in place, including laser and particle-beam weapons, despite the 1972 ABM treaty—but we now know that they never did. They had to admit that they could find no evidence of sophisticated Soviet anti-submarine capabilities, but added, “the absence of a deployed system by this time is difficult to understand. The implication could be that the Soviets have, in fact, deployed some operational nonacoustic systems and will deploy more in the next few years. [emphasis added.] Most importantly they insisted (as conservative academics still do) that world domination remained a real, rather than merely a rhetorical, Soviet objective, and that they might easily seek it through war. “While hoping to crush the ‘capitalist’ realm by other than military means, the Soviet Union is nevertheless preparing for a Third World War as if it were unavoidable. . .Within the ten year period of the National Estimate the Soviets may well expect to achieve a degree of military superiority which would permit a dramatically more aggressive pursuit of their hegemonial objectives, including direct military challenges to Western vital interests, in the belief that such superior military force can pressure the West to acquiesce or, if not, can be used to win a military contest at any level.” [emphasis in the original.]

With the Presidential campaign in progress, some one—probably General Daniel Graham of Team B, who later became the director of Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars project—leaked its conclusions to William Beecher of the Boston Globe. One cannot help but wonder if team members were willing to sacrifice President Ford in order to eliminate their greatest rival, Henry Kissinger. Interestingly enough, CIA Director Bush was initially incensed by the leak. After Carter had won the election, however, and after Bush had tried and failed to save his job, he joined in the leaking. Meanwhile, Pipes, whose role was known, had published his principal conclusions in an article in Commentary explaining that the Soviet Union was perfectly capable of fighting and winning a nuclear war. And in early 1977, Team B alumni were prominent in forming the new Committee on the Present Danger, designed to warn the country about the growing Soviet threat. Jimmy Carter’s own diplomatic and political ineptitude, the 1979 revolution in Iran, and the Soviets’ catastrophic (for everyone involved) decision to invade Afghanistan combined, bizarrely, to vindicate the hard-line view and sweep Ronald Reagan into office. Within a few months, Team B’s views had become official American policy and a huge American defense build-up had begun.

In fact, Cahn argues briefly, the seeds of Soviet collapse were already well advanced, and the enormous, debt-financed increases in our defense budget during the 1980s were generally wasted. Incredibly, conservatives claimed, and still do, that a mere five years of the Reagan build-up, forty years into the Cold War, sufficed to wreck the Soviet economy and bring down the Soviet regime. More importantly, they had learned how to take advantage of public opinion and the political process to change U.S. policy, and in the 1990s they did it again.

The Project for a New American Century was a kind of Baby Boomer version of the Committee on the Presesnt danger, and it focused on a lesser danger, Iraq, which it called upon Bill Clinton to overthrow. Clinton, like Carter, caved in rhetorically to that pressure in 1999, announcing that regime change had become the goal of our policy. Saddam’s behavior in the late 1990s, when he expelled UN inspectors, was equivocal, and Kenneth Pollack, a Democrat, stepped forward to argue that he obviously had a thriving WMD program, including nuclear weapons, underway. The neoconservatives formed an alliance with George W. Bush before his election and began working on their new project early in 2001. 9/11 served the same function as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979: it was used to validate extreme views about an entirely unrelated issue—Soviet strategic goals in 1979, Iraqi weapons and goals in 2002. And most importantly, “Team B” was now installed within the Pentagon, in Douglas Feith’s Office of Special Plans, which turned out blood-curdling estimates of Saddam’s intentions, capabilities, and connections to Al Queda, based not upon data, but upon what the “analysts” thought a tyrant like Saddam would do. The GIs of Team B had been content merely to increase the American defense budget. The Boomers of the Bush Administration wanted war—and they got it.

In the late 1970s, Theodore Draper wrote an interesting article about the aftermath of the Vietnam War, pointing out that hardly any of the early opponents of the war had won increased power or influence as a result, while none of its supporters seemed to have suffered very much. That phenomenon has continued. For psychological reasons that I have no time to go into here, hard-liners have had the emotional initiative for the last 60 years of American foreign policy, and never more than in the last seven years. Once again we have run up a huge new national debt to deal with a threat that did not really exist—and this time, because we resorted to war, we have actually made the threat much worse. I do not believe the United States can afford much more of this. I have less than no confidence that Hillary Clinton would reverse the current trends in American foreign policy and that is the main substantive policy reason why I continue to hope for the election of Barack Obama.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Appearance on Diane Rehm show

About ten days ago, I appeared on the Diane Rehm show discussing my new book, The Road to Dallas. The link is available here.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Rebirth of the Democratic Party?

This morning's polls show Obama ahead in Texas and the two candidates tied in Ohio (I have seen nothing on my home state of Rhode Island, but I have been away for a week and haven't returned yet.) Barack Obama's nomination seems more and more likely, but Hillary Clinton could pull a comeback. But in either case, the effect of this year's campaign has been profound. At long last, after 16 years of triangulation, the Democratic Party is beginning to stand for something once again--as shown by the shift in Senator Clinton's positions over the last few months.
Let's face it--essentially, the Democrats since the 1980s had become the responsible, moderate Republican party. Yes, they were liberal on social issues--and more importantly, they showed genuine fiscal responsibility under Bill Clinton. (In so doing, actually, Clinton continued a trend that had begun under George H. W. Bush with his famous tax increase.) But the Democrats had essentially abandoned any attempt to protect the working class, as shown most famously by Clinton's embrace of NAFTA. Wall Street's ascendancy over both parties was as complete as it had been in the 1920s. Nor did Clinton take any major risks in foreign policy, caving in shamelessly, for instance, to the Cuban-American lobby and failing to live up to the agreement he reached with North Korea to keep it from acquiring nuclear weapons.
9/11 led to the complete collapse of the Democratic Party as the representative of any alternative foreign policy. With rare exceptions--such as the late and much-regretted Paul Wellstone and the ancient Robert Byrd--they rolled over in the fall of 2002 and authorized the Iraq War. Hillary Clinton, of course, was no exception. For the first seven years of the Bush Administration she played it safe, allowing Republican irresponsibility, incompetence, and extremism to open up the chance for her to realize her lifelong ambition. As the primary season opened, she had corralled most of the major Democratic contributors and was already looking forward to the fall, taking relatively conservative stands on the Iraq war, which she promised to wind up "responsibly."
It turns out, however, that Democratic voters were having none of it. Barack Obama is winning partly because of his personality and partly because of his age--but he is also winning on the issues. When Clinton late last week ran an inflammatory ad suggesting that he was not ready to be commander-in-chief, he replied quickly and devastatingly with substance, noting that she had failed the critical foreign policy test of the last 7 years by voting for the Iraq War resolution. Meanwhile, she has now had to promise an almost immediate withdrawal from Iraq as well. More to the point, with the nomination riding on the primary in Ohio, she has had in effect to repudiate NAFTA, something which would have seemed inconceivable six months ago. What is good for Wall Street no longer seems good for the country, particularly as Wall Street begins to feel the pain of the last fifteen years of excess. Clinton thought she could win on a mixture of responsible, center-right government, social issues, and women's votes. It looks as if she was wrong.
November, I suspect, will ratify a profound shift in public opinion across most of the country on these issues, and especially on foreign policy. As the economic collapse continues, John McCain will have to run on the "success" of the Iraq War, and I don't think that is going to resonate in much of the country either. Translating such shifts in opinion into policy will, however, be far more difficult. The Republicans will almost surely have enough votes for Senate filibusters next year, and they will be as ideological as ever. The New Deal succeeded only because distress was too enormous to ignore, and we will not be at a point like that one next year. But we have a good chance of electing a President with some sense of the need to live in a world in which not everyone agrees with us, and some sense of the needs of the mass of the American people--and that alone will be a huge step forward.
I'll be back next week with a longer post on a completely different topic.

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